Harrison Gray Otis

Harrison Gray Otis (1765-1848), American states man, was one of the most important leaders of the Federalist party after 1801. He epitomized both the urbanity and narrowness of the New England Federalist elite.

Harrison Gray Otis was born on Oct. 8, 1765, into a distinguished colonial family. He moved toward political responsibility and power by means of the usual channels for that time and place; he graduated from Harvard in 1783, studied law, and entered the bar prior to the ratification of the Constitution. By the mid-1790s he had assumed his place in the Massachusetts political hierarchy.

The year 1796 saw Otis move swiftly through the political turbulence to prominence. In the spring he established a nationwide reputation as an orator with a speech in defense of Jay's Treaty. During the next 9 months he successively won election to the Massachusetts Legislature, was appointed by President George Washington as U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, stood for election to Congress, and, after winning this seat, resigned his Federal post.

Otis served two terms in the House of Representatives, emerging as a staunch supporter of President John Adams, a fellow Massachusetts man. This loyalty earned him re-appointment to the attorney post in 1801, but President Thomas Jefferson removed him a year later. For many years thereafter Otis held only minor local offices; he took increasingly greater responsibility for restructuring the out-of-power Federalist party.

Otis believed that for the good of the nation the Federalist party must survive. Thus he was one of a handful of leaders who concluded that it would never do to sacrifice the Federalist party in order to save Federalist theory. He emerged in maturity as a pragmatic political leader and was a party manager who "placed a high premium on loyalty, discipline, and close cooperation."

That potent Massachusetts political oligarchy, the Essex Junto, had long since admitted Otis to membership, and he used this connection to retain a prominent spot within the national structure of the Federalist party prior to the War of 1812. His realization that extreme reaction to the war would hurt the Federalist interest led him to oppose the excesses of the Hartford Convention of 1814, of which he was a member. But his was a lonely voice for moderation.

Otis ended his political career by serving in the U.S. Senate (1817-1822) and as mayor of Boston (1829-1832). Thereafter, disillusioned by the turn American political life had taken, he foreswore public service, although he lived on until Oct. 28, 1848.

Further Reading on Harrison Gray Otis

Samuel Eliot Morison, The Life and Letters of Harrison Gray Otis, Federalist, 1765-1848 (2 vols., 1913), was superseded by his excellent one-volume edition, Harrison Gray Otis, 1765-1848: The Urbane Federalist (1969). One should also consult David H. Fischer, The Revolution of American Conservatism: The Federalist Party in the Era of Jeffersonian Democracy (1965).